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Harmen Steenwyck, Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life

Key facts
Full title Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life
Artist Harmen Steenwyck
Artist dates 1612 - 1656
Date made about 1640
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 39.2 × 50.7 cm
Inscription summary Signed
Acquisition credit Presented by Lord Savile, 1888
Inventory number NG1256
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life
Harmen Steenwyck

There’s no doubt about where our gaze is directed here. A dramatic shaft of sunlight cuts through the gloom to highlight the empty eye sockets and gap-toothed grin of a skull which lolls to one side on the edge of the table. We are staring death in the face, while the snuffed-out lamp and ticking watch remind us that our time too will come.

This genre of painting is known as a vanitas still life. The word refers to a passage in the Old Testament which contrasts the transience of worldly life with the everlasting nature of faith: ‘All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’

The implication is that human endeavours, pleasures and possession – symbolised by the books, the musical instruments and the expensive Japanese sword – are ephemeral and futile.

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